A month ago USA Today published the results of a months-long investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs that found the agency covered up mistakes and misdeeds by doctors, nurses and staffers, often by cutting secret severance agreements and then writing large severance checks.
“In some cases, agency managers do not report troubled practitioners to the National Practitioner Data Bank, making it easier for them to keep working with patients elsewhere,” the newspaper reported. “The agency also failed to ensure VA hospitals reported disciplined providers to state licensing boards.”
This past week Nevada senior Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, joined with Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, to introduce a bill that prohibits such behavior by requiring the VA to report major adverse actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank and state licensing boards within 30 days. It would also prohibit the VA from signing settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees that allow the VA to conceal serious medical errors or purge negative records from personnel files.
“The investigation’s findings are downright shameful, and we need action immediately to ensure that the VA does not hide medical mistakes or inadequate care,” Heller, a senior member of the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the bill. “That’s why Senator Manchin and I introduced legislation that demands transparency and accountability from the VA and puts a stop to concealing serious medical errors through settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees. It is our responsibility to stand up for those who put their lives on the line for this country and provide them with the world class medical care they expect and deserve. The VA lists integrity as its first core value, and VA employees make the promise to act with high moral principle and adhere to the highest professional standards. Our legislation will make sure of it by holding the VA’s feet to the fire so that the veterans the agency exists to serve have trust in their caretakers.”
Heller noted that the nation has 21 million veterans and 300,000 of those live in Nevada. He noted that the VA’s mission statement reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle.” But in recent years, the senator noted, the VA hasn’t always lived up to that mission statement.
In 2014 VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as a result of the scandal over veterans dying while waiting to receive treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital. The inspector general report called the VA’s problems “systemic.”
The inspector general found that the Phoenix VA hospital staff lied about its waiting list, claiming veterans waited on average 24 days for their first primary care appointment, when the average was 115 days. There were 1,400 vets on the official waiting list, but another 1,700 had been excluded from the list.
A subsequent audit issued on the day Shinseki resigned revealed that 64 percent of 216 VA facilities reviewed had tampered with waiting lists.
This latest scandalous revelation is nothing new to the VA. In 1945 the head of the VA hospital system resigned after a series of news reports about shoddy treatment. In 1976 an investigation of a Denver VA hospital found some veterans’ surgical dressings were rarely changed. In 1986 the inspector general found 93 VA physicians had sanctions against their medical licenses, including suspensions and revocations. In 2007 a commission reported “delays and gaps in treatment and services.”
In 2012 the VA opened a new hospital in North Las Vegas. It cost $1 billion, four times the original budget, and took six years to build. The emergency room was too small and had to be doubled in size a year and half later. The hospital is many hours away for rural Nevada veterans.
While Heller’s bill is needed to stanch the latest hemorrhage, perhaps it is past time for Congress to disband the VA health care system and just give veterans vouchers for the doctors and hospitals of their choice.
A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.